As the Edmonton Oilers start to wrap up their pre-season and prepare to make their final cuts, many of the Oilers' top prospects are heading back to either Oklahoma City or their respective junior squads with some valuable NHL experience under their belts.
The team's 2013 first-round pick, Darnell Nurse, has made waves in his debut as an Oiler, while others have made strong bids toward an NHL future in their first year of professional hockey. Below are a number of prospects that have either gained a foothold in their respective category, are looking to have a breakout year, or are at an otherwise notable point in their development.
Top Pro Prospect
Nail Yakupov, RW, Edmonton Oilers (NHL)
As the top overall prospect on the previous two Hockey's Future Top 20 ranking lists, Yakupov is a no-brainer to head the pro prospect ranks. The Russian winger already has one impressive NHL season under his belt and has shown no signs of slowing down in his training camp performances thus far. He finished the 2012-13 season on a point-per-game pace in the month of April, topped off with a hat trick in the final game of the season.
Yakupov lit up the ice during a few pre-season scrimmages with his fellow prospects and, paired with the right veteran linemates, should continue to improve at an exponential rate through the 2013-14 season.
A shoulder injury sidelined young defensive prospect Oscar Klefbom early in the 2012-13 season. He has since undergone surgery and spent some time in Edmonton skating with the team in early 2013, hoping to get back on track.
After being selected 19th overall in 2011, the Oilers had big expectations for the Swedish rearguard. His injury was definitely an unfortunate setback in his development, but Klefbom was determined to return to his top form as training camp approached. Unfortunately, he suffered a mild concussion in a pre-season game against the University of Alberta Golden Bears and looked a bit rusty in his first NHL pre-season game against the Winnipeg Jets, but all things considered, his natural ability is still evident and should help him pull through to have a strong bounceback season following his injury.
The Oilers' off-season acquisitions of veterans Andrew Ference, Denis Grebeshkov, and Anton Belov mean that spots in the Oilers top-six are at a premium. Klefbom looks poised to begin his season at the AHL level, which is perfectly fine. There is no reason to rush the development of a prospect of his caliber, especially now that the Oilers have the luxury of a bit more depth on their blue line.
Offensive Breakout Prospect
Tyler Pitlick, C, Oklahoma City Barons (AHL)
Around the time of his 2010 draft, people had nothing but good things to say about centerman Tyler Pitlick. He had a great final year in junior and looked poised to carry his natural offensive ability with him to Oklahoma City. Unfortunately, Pitlick's pro career has been plagued with injury and has thus far been nothing short of disappointing.
For that reason, Pitlick is a bit of an odd prediction for a prospect heading for an offensive breakout year, but Pitlick really seems to have turned a corner since returning from injury late in the 2012-13 season. He played in a third-line role in the post-season with the Oklahoma City Barons and looks better than he has in a long time in the two pre-season games that he has played with the Oilers thus far. While he likely will not be on the final roster list with the Oilers, this is the second chance Pitlick has been waiting for. If he can stay healthy this upcoming season, he looks ready to take his game to the next level. A great season would inject some life into his pro career and show that he really is the top quality prospect that the Oilers drafted three years ago.
Top Junior Prospect
Darnell Nurse, D, Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds (OHL)
Darnell Nurse is still on the Oilers' long list after a few rounds of cuts in training camp. Although he is probably bound to end up back with his OHL team by the time things are settled out, the big defenseman has been turning heads. Coaches, scouts, and players alike have been marveling at the caliber of his play, agreeing that the young rearguard has a big future ahead of him.
His natural talent and aggressive playing style make him a pleasure to watch. Although he is young and playing with brand new teammates in his pre-season outings, he does not look a hair out of place. He is playing top minutes, blocking shots, and pushing experienced NHL veterans off of the puck. If Nurse continues to perform and improve, it is safe to say that Oilers fans will likely be seeing him in a top defensive role in the not-so-distant future.
Jujhar Khaira is the total package – he is big, he is tough, and he has some pretty impressive skill. While he was not much to look at when he was drafted 63rd overall out of the BCHL after going undrafted in the WHL bantam draft, Khaira came into his own during his one season at Michigan Tech.
Khaira headed into training camp with a freshly minted entry-level contract, his sights set on Oklahoma City. While it is likely that he may be set to the Everett Silvertips to spend another year in junior before making his pro debut, he is certainly on the fast track to success. The centerman's vast improvement heading into the 2013-14 season is definitely evident when compared to where he was at development camp last year. Wherever he ends up this season, he will definitely be one to keep a close eye on and looks poised to have his best season to date.
Mitchell Moroz, LW, Edmonton Oil Kings (WHL)
Since being drafted 32nd overall in 2012, Mitchell Moroz has been under everyone's microscope. His physical presence on the ice is indisputable, but many have called his offensive production into question following his high draft slot. Moroz has been working hard to show that his talent extends beyond his fists and solidify himself as a talented power-forward type prospect, but has not yet had that stellar season that he has been looking for to quell his critics.
This September, Moroz looked solid as he survived initial training camp cuts, resulting in some ice time at the NHL level in a pre-season game against the Winnipeg Jets. He capitalized on the opportunity, scoring the first Oilers goal of the night in what was eventually a 3-2 loss. He has since been re-assigned to the Edmonton Oil Kings of the WHL, but his extended stay with the big club may give him the offensive spark that he needs as he heads into what will likely be his final junior season.
Top Amateur Prospect
Dillon Simpson, D, University of North Dakota (NCHC)
Dillon Simpson has been consistently improving since making his college debut as a 17-year-old. As he enters his senior year with North Dakota, he will be expected to continue his well-rounded play while bringing leadership, consistency, and reliability to his squad. He plays a lot of minutes on special teams and he has made great strides in improving his skating, which he was previously dinged for by some critics.
The young rearguard has good size, great two-way vision, and is a positionally sound player. He is a bit of a dark horse when it comes to NHL contention and his final year in the NCAA will be important in dictating what the future holds for Simpson.
John McCarron, RW, Cornell Big Red (ECAC)
John McCarron has been at Cornell University for the past two seasons, steadily working hard to improve his game. His hard work has paid off, as he was named captain of the Cornell Big Red as he heads into his junior season. As a sixth round pick, McCarron has always been a long-shot for an NHL future, but he is definitely not one to write off: His point production has been pretty good in a lower line role with the Big Red and his recent promotion will give him all the tools he needs to make that jump and turn his offensive production from good to great.
Increased ice time and responsibility should help McCarron continue to make a name for himself and climb higher up on the Oilers' radar. A strong junior season will be instrumental as he turns his focus towards obtaining an entry-level contract next year and making the jump from the NCAA to the pro ranks.
Unsigned for 2014-15
Kellen Jones, LW, Quinnipiac Bobcats (ECAC)
Kellen Jones is entering his senior year at Quinnipiac University and more than likely has an entry-level contract on his mind, following his university graduation. He was a late draft pick and definitely a project in the truest sense of the word, so obtaining a contract is going to take a lot of hard work on his part.
Jones finished the 2012-13 season with a respectable 27 points in 43 games, but is by no means lighting it up. He definitely has natural scoring ability, but is on the small side and is a relatively weak skater, which often gets him in trouble when carrying the puck through the neutral zone. He will need to really impress in his final college season in order to have a fighting chance at an NHL contract.
Top European Prospect
Anton Slepyshev, LW, Salavat Yulaev Ufa (KHL)
After going undrafted in 2012 which came as a bit of a surprise to many who had ranked Slepyshev in the top 100, the Oilers snagged this pick at 88 in 2013.
Unlike previous categories and with the departure of Klefbom for North America, the Oilers do not really have a blue chip prospect still playing in Europe. Slepyshev takes this prediction over his European counterparts, partially because he has the most experience on the international stage and has over a season in the KHL under his belt. Slepyshev has an intriguing offensive upside, has good size, and is a strong skater with decent hands. He does not have the truly cerebral playing style of some of his peers, but he has natural ability and looks as if it just needs to be harnessed a bit more effectively.
At this point, his future with the Oilers is uncertain, but another year in the KHL will strengthen his game before, and if, he looks to make the jump to North American hockey.
Offensive Breakout Prospect
Bogdan Yakimov, C, Neftekhimik Nizhnekamsk (KHL)
Russian prospect Bogdan Yakimov is a big centerman with great hands, strong hockey sense, and is tough to push off the puck, but sometimes has a lack of finish, would could have something to do with his sub-par skating skills. North America has not seen much of Yakimov as he failed to make Russia's last World Junior team, but he is an intriguing pick nonetheless.
Yakimov is set to make his KHL debut this season, which should shine a better light on exactly what the Oilers have with the young center. While the jump from the VHL to the KHL will likely mean diminished playing time for Yakimov, if he is able to adjust to the increased speed of the more superior Russian league, his offensive game might benefit from the improved caliber of his new linemates.
Unsigned for 2014-15
Erik Gustafsson, D, Frolunda (SHL)
Erik Gustafsson is entering his first year of a two-year contract with the Frolunda of the Swedish Hockey League, so it does not look like an NHL contract is coming his way in the near future.
He is an average defensive prospect that was previously playing in a second-tier Swedish league and was definitely a project when he was drafted as an overager in the 2012 draft. Strong points in his game are his puck movement and ability to generate offense, but his play in his own end is weak and he tends to get caught out of position. He may turn a corner during his tenure with Frolunda, but at this point it doe not look like an entry-level contract is in the cards for Gustafsson.